Music scholarship across genres is often concerned with music's metaphysical and ephemeral effects on individuals, communities, and society. These scholarly framings constitute a concept that we refer to here as “the magic of music”. Using this framing, this article addresses the ways that the magic is undermined by a range of worldly, non-magical realities, using the case study of the COVID-19 pandemic lockdowns and their devastating effects on the previously thriving live music industry in Naarm/Melbourne, Australia. The magic of music includes such aspects as the intangible sounds of music, the mysterious practice of creative music-making, and the transformative effects on audiences and others who participate in music culture. We begin with a broad discussion of the sonic properties of music as a form of magic—a common rhetoric that has been used across the world regardless of genre or cultural origin. Next, we turn to the social contexts surrounding music, such as live music settings. De Jong and Lebrun argue that “the power of music” can create “moments of rare, intense and direct interactions between individuals” that are often described as magical, and that “magic is, in this sense, understood as a perfectly natural and plausible, and not supernatural, experience, even if its intensity and rarity in one's life makes it extra-ordinary” (4). We use this framing of “music as magic” in our consideration of the specific context of Australia’s music industry from 2020 to the present. We posit that the devastating effects of the COVID-19 pandemic, alongside government-sanctioned lockdowns, cultural shifts such as an increased focus on poor working conditions and risk in music work, and detrimental arts funding policies worked together to effectively break the spell of “music as magic” for industry and patrons. Finally, we draw on key examples from popular music studies, industry reports and new government policies, to call attention to recent proposals to rehabilitate the magic through a re-enchantment of music and the music industry.
Feels like Magic: The Social Context of Music
Music is a form of organised sound and silence that people across cultures, history, and places, have articulated as possessing magical properties (Nettl). Music is not only sound waves but also a social category, thus the notion of magic extends beyond sound into everyday discourse in the social realm of music, which will be the focus of this article. Audiences/listeners may describe their own response to music as a magical feeling, stemming from the performer’s ability to convey emotion and provide a performance that “mirrors the performer’s [own] deep connection to the music” (Loeffler 19). Such ‘magical moments’ of deep connection among audience members and between audiences and performers may be elicited in various ways. Examples include the sense of emotional self-recognition found via personal lyrics, resonance with unique vocal timbres, or the shared sense of belonging that develops with fellow audience members, including strangers, during musical events (Anderson). For the latter, the magic (or “magick”, a spelling associated with stagecraft) of ritualised music performance is a common element of Paganism in music performance, with some popular music artists implicitly “appropriat[ing] the Pagan subculture's symbols for artistic inspiration and commercial gain”, presenting themselves as contemporary conduits that reconnect audiences to old magics (Sweeney Smith 91; see also Weston). When it comes to these sorts of ideas about magic and music, performers and audiences routinely make claims about magical musical powers such as “talent”, an idea deployed to describe the skills and charisma of certain musicians, and “creativity”, a “magic ingredient” (see McRobbie) that people who write or produce music are supposed to possess in order to perform their craft (Gadir 61–4; Gross and Musgrave 10, 22; see also Nairn).
Music of all forms can provide profound affective experiences, regardless of how it is made and who plays it. There is also a magical discourse present in popular music that has reached millions of people in a globalised musical world dominated by recordings. For as long as music has had a mass market, its magic properties (as articulated in multiple ways across history) have been a selling point for musicians, records, and concerts. The recorded music industry’s very selection process is rooted in the idea that “creativity is based on ‘little bits of magic’ and that success is down to luck and timing” (Gross and Musgrave 140). Music writing (scholarly, criticism, journalism) tends to focus on these magical properties: from the sublime nature of a musical work and its form to the phenomenology of sound and affective experience of music, and even the inexplicable, elusive ‘talent’ of particular musicians. Jimi Hendrix labelled his music work “completely, utterly a magic science” (Clarke 195), while Joni Mitchell “consistently referred to Charles Mingus, Wayne Shorter, and Jaco Pastorius as ‘magicians’ and ‘shamans,’ thereby conferring a susceptibility to the miraculous upon the musicians she most respected” (Lloyd 124). As we show below, this conflation of magical and religious concepts is evident elsewhere in discourse on the intangibility of musical talent.
Some genres of music have emphasised the idea of music as magic more than others. For example, scholarship on electronic dance music (EDM) has embraced the concept of “DJ as shaman” (Brewster and Broughton 19; Luckman 133; Rietveld “Introduction” 1; Rietveld This Is Our House) and the nightclub as a “pseudo-religious pilgrimage site” (Becker and Woebs 59), extending Benjamin’s argument for art’s origins in service of ritual (24). Miller has further alluded to a mystical DJ craft, both as a performer quoted in music media (Gallagher) and in his own academic writing: “gimme two records and I’ll make you a universe” (DJ Spooky That Subliminal Kid 127; Miller 497). Shamanism is also explored in rock music discourse (see Kennedy 81–90). Notions of musical magic extend beyond performances and personalities into the recording studio. Music mastering is commonly labelled a “dark art” (Hepworth-Sawyer and Golding 241; Hinksman 13; Nardi 211), and the music studio as a site where magic is made (Anthony 43, 194). Rolling Stone magazine has even deployed a recurrent editorial phrase—“the magic that can set you free”—to distinguish the authenticity of rock from pop music (Frith 164–5).
We argue that two key ruptures of the last few years—namely, widespread lockdown policies during the COVID-19 pandemic, and emerging discussions on poor working conditions and harms in the music industries—have had the effect of breaking the magic spell of music. There has been a groundswell of musicians, commentators, and scholars pausing to query (and in some cases overturn entirely) some of the illusions that the music industry constructs around musicians. We use the city of Naarm/Melbourne in Australia to draw out some of these trends.
When the Magic Dies: Breaking the Spell of the Music Industry
The COVID-19 pandemic resulted in lengthy lockdowns in the city of Naarm/Melbourne. In total, over a two-year period, the city spent 262 days in home confinement under strict orders from the government, with limited travel and no access to the usual amenities of the city, including all public in-person entertainment (Jose). This had a profound effect on the state’s musicians and the music industries that service them. It completely closed the city’s music venues for an extended period, driving musicians into alternative, virtual modes of performance (Vincent) and driving other music workers into non-music-related employment. For a city often touted as “the live music capital of Australia” (see Homan et al.), the lockdowns effectively broke the spell of music as a key employer and as a driver of arts practice and social experience in Melbourne. Quite suddenly, the lockdown periods revealed the precarious lives of musicians away from the stage. Once stripped of the “magical” quality of live performance, musicians’ work and practice appeared both more complex and more routine.
The COVID-19 pandemic broke the spell of music that takes place in social settings. At the start of 2020, live music was one of the first activities to be banned. Live music relies on people being near one another, often in enclosed spaces. It often involves people on stage and in the crowd singing, an activity identified early in the pandemic as an effective method of spreading the virus. These attributes, together with its status as “entertainment” rather than as an essential activity, meant that live music gatherings became entirely illegal (Strong and Cannizzo). Even as lockdowns were lifted, live music was one of the last activities to be reinstated, albeit with access restricted in various ways.
People continued to engage with music via other means, for example, through virtual live-streamed performances and platform-based audio streaming. Globally, there was an increase in people listening to older, nostalgic music (Yeung)—an indicator that music was still being used for its magical self-soothing capacities, alleviating the worst pandemic anxieties. However, the closure of the Victorian live music sector drew attention to the material conditions of music making in new ways (“Losses Continue”). Many musicians and music workers could not take advantage of government schemes to support workers who had lost their income during the pandemic (Triscari). This highlighted what was already known to music industry workers: that their work was insecure. It also revealed the contradictions within government music policies: on the one hand, music’s utility for city branding, on the other, little regard for what support and resources are required for it to take place.
As more and more musicians used the pandemic to draw attention to their already existing labour conditions, the precarious and mundane aspects of music-making became foregrounded in broader discussions (see Strong and Cannizzo). These included the overall degree to which musicians are exploited (see Nairn), whether musicians can earn a living wage, pay their rent, or receive other workplace benefits including safe working environments. These problems exist in stark contrast to the historically mythologised portrayals of musicians as concerned about their art and Dionysian social experience above all else, regardless of their physical or material conditions.
In reality, live music work has always included mundane activities and routine labour. The historical mythology of the “star”, regardless of genre, tends to depict the lives of performers as exotic and removed from everyday life. In this sense, performers are perceived as magical as much as the music they make. The everyday world, within this mythology, is something akin to “a fearful, life-threatening condition that could ensnare you in its grasp … as relentless routine and the marker of social distinction” (Highmore 16). Audiences tend to view musicians as committed to alternative ways of being, and music performance as an escape from the everyday, wherein work becomes interchangeable with leisure and touring provides a nomadic lifestyle. However, in recent years, popular music studies research, together with musicians, fans, and media, have called these ideas into question.
A career in live music performance appears to offer no escape from responsibility—something at the heart of fearful representations of everyday life. Inside of a music practice, new responsibilities emerge. Leisure becomes labour with all its attendance downsides. Close-knit familial-style relationships are formed, often based on financial and creative partnerships, including the risk of gender-based abuse that exists within such relationships (Fileborn et al.). The nomadic life of a performer involves its own cramped and confining aspects (a life of group transit and service entrances). This combines with an already in-progress push towards making the vicissitudes of this work more visible—afforded by social media, cultural formations such as #MeToo, and a significant upswing in research showing the harms of music work (Gross and Musgrave; Strong and Cannizzo)—to significantly undermine the myth of live music’s magical properties. In Naarm/Melbourne, prior to the pandemic, this myth was brittle. After years of lockdown, it arguably shattered.
The emotional devastation wrought by an abrupt and almost complete cessation of live music activities also had flow-on effects on recorded music. For example, it prevented activities such as tours that support album releases, recording sessions, or rehearsing new musical material. Already existing mental health issues in the music industry were highlighted and amplified by these circumstances (Brunt and Nelligan). Together with the aforementioned financial disadvantage experienced by musicians, research had already shown for years before the pandemic that mental health was poor in this sector (Gross and Musgrave). Such mental health issues are due in part to the relationship between music work and conceptions of self and identity, where success or failure are felt as intensely personal (a by-product of the idea that music possesses magical qualities). Mental health problems are also associated with exclusion, bullying and harassment, which are not only widespread but have been normalised and even celebrated for decades. Pre-existing pressures such as these were exacerbated dramatically by the pandemic lockdowns, which spurred on further discussions about them (Strong and Cannizzo).
During the pandemic, the magic of music had been disrupted in several ways: the ability of music to connect people to one another in live settings had been curtailed or removed, and the narratives of the creation of music being magical had been replaced with a vision of mundanity, hardship, and underappreciation. If the magic did not set musicians or music workers free, why should they return to long working hours for little pay in an industry that was frequently unsafe and that left them feeling bad—especially when they discovered that when the chips were down, they would be left out of the support offered to others?
Re-Enchanting Music: Conjuring a Different Kind of Magic
Weber used the term “enchantment” as a means of explaining the magic within worldly (empirical) phenomena. By contrast, he argued that disenchantment was the removal of magical experience from the real world and that this was the result of replacing the “supernatural” exclusively with rationality and calculation (Koshul 9). The easing of lockdown conditions heralded what we call here the “re-enchantment” of the music industry. An industry that is re-enchanted refers to a world which is “susceptible again to redemption” and is “reimbued not only with mystery and wonder but also with order [and] purpose” (Landy and Slalor 2). During the early post-lockdown period, the aim of government, patrons, and the entertainment industry was to rekindle the pre-COVID levels of audience engagement with live music. Audiences themselves were eager to return to live music and were prepared to spend money on concert tickets and music festivals, according to findings from the Australia Council’s Audience Outlook Monitor (Patternmakers). However, this report also showed that restrictions, fears of further outbreaks, and lockdowns were still looming in the minds of audiences and event organisers. This was compounded by a lack of investment in the creative industries broadly by the Australian Federal government during lockdowns and a staggered reopening, particularly in the state of Victoria, where lockdowns continued well into 2021. The road back to ‘normality’ would require putting audiences, industry, and, indeed, the government, back under the spell of music.
Reaffirming the idea that music has a fundamental value in society and culture was the first step. The election of a federal Labor government in 2022 started this process, after a decade of conservative Liberal leadership that had actively worked to devalue and defund the arts. The new government quickly launched a consultation process around the arts in Australia, and launched the resulting policy, titled Revive: Australia's Cultural Policy for the Next Five Years, in mid-2023. This policy not only reaffirmed the central place of the arts, including music, in Australia's social life, but went further than any previous government in acknowledging some of the disenchantment in the industry. They committed to establishing Music Australia (Creative Australia) as a body dedicated to ensuring the prominence of music in arts activities, and the Centre for Arts and Entertainment Workplaces, a body that would, among other things, deal with complaints around workplace misconduct of various types. This later body was created partly in response to the Raising Their Voices report documenting widespread bullying and sexual harassment in music spaces.
In addition to this, Australian state governments implemented various measures to encourage the re-normalisation of concert attendance. For example, the Victorian State Government’s Always Live funded programme was launched with a regional, one-off gig by the Foo Fighters. Initiatives such as these on the state and federal level served to bolster the struggling industry. An initially slow return to live shows, followed by a spate of visually spectacular, large-scale, sold-out shows by Harry Styles and Taylor Swift, indicate a return to a form of ‘business as usual’ for top-tier international touring artists.
Although top-down policy can send a message that music work is valued, much of the ‘magic’ of music is created by communities and within grassroots spaces. In Naarm/Melbourne, the announcement that the iconic live music venue the Tote Hotel was being put up for sale has provided a flashpoint moment. The venue’s current owners have become emblematic of the problems in the industry, reportedly failing to provide proper benefits to their staff over a long period (Marozzi). The owners of the Last Chance Rock and Roll Bar have since announced a fundraiser for three million dollars to buy the Tote, which they have framed in terms of protecting the value of music to the Naarm/Melbourne community. The owners promised to not only protect music-making on the site but also to “leave the Tote to the bands and future generations for the rest of time” by “putting the building into a trust that will legally protect the Tote from being anything other than a Live Music Venue” (“Last Chance to Save the Tote”). References to the (dark) magic of this situation is visible in the designs for the t-shirts given out for contributors to the funding campaign: two zombies crawling from the grave of the Tote, beers in hand, ready to keep on rockin’. The zombies are indicative of a venue risen from the dead through the Naarm/Melbourne music community’s magical effort. The response of the public and commentators that have followed the achievement of this fundraising goal is akin to the wonderment of an audience seeing a magician perform an impressive trick. Notably, the community-led and community-focussed approach of the Tote draws on the magic of connection built around music scenes, not only corporate interests. This includes exploring how venues can be owned by the communities that use them (Wray), schemes that provide artists with a universal basic income (Caust), and “safer spaces” strategies that work to increase the accessibility of music for everyone (Hill et al.).
In this article, we have outlined the ways that Naarm/Melbourne, which has been celebrated as one of the world’s best live music cities, temporarily lost the magical allure of its musical life in the eyes of many, and subsequently started to regain it through a fragile process of rejuvenation. Traces of ideas about live music’s ineffable magic can clearly be found in recovery stories that now circulate. Moreover, such stories are articulated against a backdrop of new mythologies forming around the city’s music branding and practice. The especially long pandemic lockdown period in Naarm/Melbourne has brought into sharper focus the hard realities of music-making and performance—as labour, local culture, and policy. The post-COVID city is now tasked with selectively rebuilding itself as a music city, unifying the magical potency of the old with a more clear-eyed, unromantic analysis of the present.
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